By Chana Shapiro / cshapiro@atljewishtimes.com

My friend Susan called off her engagement because her fiancé, Eric, lost his shoes playing poker.

Chana Shapiro

Long before everyone had personal technology devices, we university students avoided writing papers by playing games. We got together in the quad for five-square (words) and bridge or poker (cards) during long breaks between classes.

Of course, there were a few for whom these activities led to intemperate wagering and a subsequent loss of possessions. Eric was one of them, and the shoe incident was the last straw for Susan. (She eventually took up with a sociology TA who liked Scrabble, and that worked out much better.)

My friends and I were products of our working-class, games-playing families. Some couples played bridge or gin rummy. Some fathers played pinochle. Some mothers got together for mah jongg. The betting was minimal, and the competition was amiable.

My siblings and I, growing up like this, always liked games, but I never was a heavy-duty card player like some of my friends. Word games became my drug of choice, even though my mother pushed the educational merit of cards.

When our children were preschoolers, my mother explained that cards were an ideal way for them to learn numbers, distinguish categories using the different suits and plan alternate strategies. To this end, our daughters at a very young age began playing cards with my father. They loved Pisha Paysha, a game which requires nothing more than an ability to identify the numerals and differentiate them from picture cards. No strategy, no betting, just raw luck.

My father was an expert at games, and he was also an expert grandfather: He patiently played hand after hand with our daughters, who were as likely to win as he was.

My mother suggested that every time we flew from New York to the Old Country (St. Louis), I should ask the stewardess for a deck of cards to occupy the kids during the flight. Sure, I could have brought a deck with me, but my mother believed that passengers should wring every possible bit of product out of the expensive fare. Our requests were never refused.

Occasionally we used the cards during the flight, but more often our daughters chose to keep the new deck in its pristine wrapper. I know what you’re thinking: Today, asking for a deck of cards would be like asking for adequate leg room. And, in case you’re wondering, my mother always asked for cards when she and my father flew to visit us. This prize was added to the huge stash of freebies in the desk.

One Shabbat afternoon a few years ago, feeling slothful after a long lunch, we craved entertainment. Our son-in-law, Alex, asked for a deck of cards (no problem there!) and did a few sleight-of-hand tricks. Our grandchildren were thrilled and wanted to learn. One thing led to another, and somehow we all ended up playing blackjack.

Blackjack? Yes, blackjack. At first I was uncertain about Alex’s influence, but I saw the light. It was math, and it was strategy, and it was multigenerational, and it was socializing, and it was fun. Thanks, Mom.

Last week I popped in at our grandchildren’s school during “Specialties.” Miriam’s Israeli dance class paid me no heed, so I visited Zellik’s card-playing group, who asked me to join them.

There I sat with 10 second- and third-graders, who were doing a great job of strategizing, adding and subtracting. I think a couple of them were actually counting cards like pros. I asked if they were having as much fun as when they’re alone on the computer. It was a split decision.

I had hoped for a larger pro-game vote, so I have no choice. I’m on a mission. I’ll start by inviting you and your preschoolers to play Pisha Paysha. Don’t worry about bringing your own deck of cards; believe me, I have plenty.